kennedy's Wine rules

Rule 1. Be skeptical about “the rules”

Especially at first, your approach should be experimental and inductive. As you build up a base of experiences and preferences then, by all means, read what others have to say. Absorb a little at a time, always alternating others’ words with your own experience. Do not be cowed by other people’s opinions, which are mostly just recycled bullshit. On the other hand, if you encounter a known expert, listen and ask questions.

Rule 2. Sublimate

Too much wine makes you drunk. If that is your goal, or if you’re in the midst of a rowdy social situation, fine. But if you’re trying to be discriminating while acquiring experience, structure your wine-drinking accordingly: judicious appraisals and comparisons must be separated from bacchanalia. Corollary: Drink less but better.

Rule 3. Ask the wine guy

Most people who sell wine love to talk about it. Don’t ask for wine advice at CVS or Safeway. But in specialized wine shops, you’re likely to encounter informed people who really like what they’re doing. Tell them that you’re planning a dinner and ask what they’d recommend. Or say that you’d like to offer a wine-tasting experience for friends. Or that you’d like to explore a particular varietal (variety of grape) or the wines of a particular region. Watch for the response. If the salesman immediately starts walking toward a spot on the shelf, or if he or she asks you a pertinent question, then you’re in luck: you’ll get good advice. If you get an uncertain or befuddled responses (“Um, this is popular.” “Let me ask my manager.”), ask someone else or go elsewhere.

Rule 4. Eat

Wine and food go together. The best way to taste wine is to pair it with various foods. You can do this at restaurants, during the week at home, or at dinner parties. The dinners you stage allow you to structure the experience to advance your own particular wine-learning goals.

Rule 5. Explore

Wine is like golf in that it can provide a lodestone for tourism. Places that produce grapes are generally pretty nice places with pretty good restaurants and other amenities. Start locally. 

Rule 6. Wine is like few other consumer markets

Brands can help a little, at first, but they won’t take you very far. If you find something you like from Kendall-Jackson or Rosemount or Concha y Toro, by all means, try one of their other bottles. But don’t stop there. Brands as conventionally known may account for a large percentage of wine sales, but they represent only a minuscule share of what you can experience in the world of wine. Brands are shortcuts for consumers—in the wine business, there are shortcuts, but the most useful ones have little to do with branding. Look at the back label: Who selected or imported the wine? Who distributes it in your area? These clues function a bit like brands. After a while, you will learn that you like the products selected, imported, and distributed by particular companies. But the world of wine is much vaster than that, so, if you keep an open mind, you’ll have the pleasure of finding still other ways to organize and direct your experience. Consider investing in the beautifully illustrated (and mapped) World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. First of all, it will give you a sense of the vastness of the vinicultural universe. Second, it (or other volumes like it), will allow you to complement your experiences with small doses of related reading.

Rule 7. Be humble; avoid the temptation to display your newfound knowledge

You’re more likely to learn and less likely to make an idiot of yourself if you listen more and talk less (except to ask questions and voice impressions about what you’re tasting). Nobody needs to know that you disapprove of oaky chardonnays or that you think sweet (dry, red, white, Chilean, South African) wines are garbage. I was once at a wine dinner where a woman asked, in all earnestness, what the difference was between red and white burgundy. Her overbearing husband, not waiting for the host to respond, told her (like a 4-year-old dispensing knowledge to a 2-year-old), that to make white burgundy the winemakers peeled the skins off the grapes used for red burgundy.

Rule 8. There’s nothing wrong with screwtops

Rule 9. Glassware matters

Your glassware doesn’t have to be expensive, but it should be right. Good wine won’t taste bad in a juice glass, but it won’t taste as good as it would in a proper one. Many good wine shops sell glassware. See what they’re offering, then go buy it at Macy’s.

Rule 10. Taste is subjective

You don’t have to apologize for what you like. But do keep an open mind and try new things. If you keep exploring, it is a certainty that you will be pleasantly surprised, over and over again. It is a beautiful world, fragrant and filling.

Rule 11. Price is not a reliable guide

The price-quality function is logarithmic. That is, a wine costing $100 is not necessarily “ten times better” (whatever that means) than one tasting $10. For that reason, price can be an unreliable cue even when one’s sole goal is to send a social signal. The bottom line, I guess, is this: Build your knowledge on moderately priced wines ($10–25). Once you have a solid foundation, it may be worth spending more occasionally, if only to test the elasticity and the uncertainties of the price-quality ratio. Fine restaurants can be good places to test higher-priced wines. Their markups are less on more-expensive wines, and you will have the reputation of the restaurant and of the sommelier as promises of quality.